The Film: Brewster’s Millions (1985)

The Principals: Richard Pryor, John Candy, Lonette McKee, Joe Grifasi, Hume Cronyn, Jerry Orbach, Pat Hingle, Walter Hill (director)

The Premise: Montgomery Brewster (Pryor) is a minor league baseball pitcher who comes into an inheritance from a distant relative (Cronyn). He’s given two options: 1) he can take a million dollars and walk away or 2) he can spend $30 Million in 30 days and have no money left by the end of the month. If he can do that, he’ll get $300 Million.

Is It Good?: Having recently seen two Walter Hill movies at The Wright Stuff at the New Beverly, I’ve developed a renewed interest in Walter Hill’s filmography. I mean, I already love the man, but there are a couple of his films I hadn’t seen. Two of which included this and Undisputed. I’ve now watched both, and Undisputed is inarguably the better film and inarguably the better Walter Hill vehicle, but I’m more interested in writing about Brewster’s Millions. I think partly because it’s a movie that works in spite of the fact that it gets nothing great out of either its lead or its director.

Oh, I haven’t seen his Crossroads (starring Ralph Macchio), but that’s partly because when Pauline Kael wrote her review for it, she fell asleep writing it. But to that – for the longest time – the major gaps in my knowledge of the best 70’s directors were their mid-80’s periods. It wasn’t until recently that I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married or Gardens of Stone, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, or Joe Dante’s Explorers. And – to be fair – none of these pictures were bad, but their reputations suggests modest pleasures, and so I could never prioritize them like I could – say – John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. It’s weird to me in that the 1980’s used to be seen as a wasteland. To be fair, it had a lot of problems, but I feel like the 90’s were infinitely worse, and home video and DVD has emphasized a generation of films that were terrible and/or overrated. The mid-to-late 90’s feature some of the most indifferent and awkward films I’ve ever seen… then again comparing something like Raw Deal to Mercury Rising, there is no winning. Perhaps the 80’s seem better because it’s had more wheat separated from the chaff. The 90’s, the Clinton years, have all that Miramax bullshit, films that were sold on their outsider status and have ended up being less than the sum of their parts. Whatever.

Walter Hill directed 48hrs, and it’s one of the great 80’s action comedies and manages to be better than Beverly Hills Cop (which is okay, but misses having good action, or someone better for Eddie Murphy to bounce off of), but 48hrs seems to be why Walter Hill directed Richard Pryor. Pryor was one of those guys who bounced around Hollywood for years, and had some commercial success, but few – if any – of his film roles ever captured anything close to the genius of his stand-up. In fact, the only lead role of his that I would recommend seeing isn’t even a comedy. It’s Paul Schrader’s debut Blue Collar. That’s great, as is his supporting work in The Mack – though the director of The Mack has talked about having to edit around Pryor because of his unreliability.

The thing that saves Brewster’s Millions is that it has a great plot that’s been recycled numerous times. Brewster must spend a lot of money without turning a profit, and so some of his investments are going to go well and others are going to go badly. Surely the stamp bit is the one most recycled in the numerous remakes of the title, and the spending spree is enough of a hook (along with a number of weird cameos from people as diverse as Peter Jason and Rick Moranis) to keep the film moving in its 97 minute running time

But the interesting thing about Brewster’s is that Hill never finds a sequence or a set piece that he’s in love with. There’s nothing here (from the baseball sequences to the money spending) that seems to get him going, and Pryor’s just doing a variation on PG Pryor, the oversized but affable satyr who’s mostly a good guy. Eddie Murphy – at his best or worse – at least had the con-man to fall back on, where Pryor never had an archetype, perhaps because his comic persona as a comedian was as a truth teller. This, this is bullshit. But the mechanics of the narrative, and a ringer supporting cast make the film totally watchable, but easily forgettable. It’s like cheap beer that’s not aggressively terrible. Pabst Blue Ribbon cinema.

Is It Worth a Look: The other reason I wanted to pick this film is that my answer is “not really.” I’ve done a lot of these with classic films that people may not have seen, but I do watch films that slightly thud. I would never describe this as a bad movie, but like Pocket Money – a not great film co-written by Terence Malick – it’s definitely a curio for those who love the major talents involved. God, I’ve said nothing about John Candy, but he’s doing the thankless work that came from being awesome in Splash. His work here – like the majority of the cast – is undistinguished.

Random Anecdotes: This is the seventh version of the narrative (an eight is in the works). Torchy’s – the bar in the opening of the movie – is also featured in The Driver and 48hrs.